This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.
Have you ever picked up a book and read back cover copy that sent shivers down your spine? You know what I mean: stories located in a peaceful country garden filled with sweetpeas and butterflies, or the brooding castle that bristles with medieval weaponry—these are the settings that tell you what adventures lie in store.
As a writer, you want your readers to immerse themselves in your story, and a good setting can help you do that by grounding readers in time and place. Generalized elements such as a small town or the Roaring Twenties set reader expectations for how characters might behave and your plot develop. But you can enrich your settings to do a lot more.
Robert McKee says that setting can establish mood and evoke emotion, enhance story unity, intensify suspense, motivate or explain character, and clarify the novel’s theme. The four elements of setting include:
- Time period
- Level of conflict
These elements are especially important to genre fiction, which is based on geography or locale (Westerns), time and place (fantasy), emotional intensity (romance), or technology (science fiction).
How much can setting affect story? Think about The Phantom of the Opera, which was written in 1909, and why it still resonates with audiences. The plot and characters are standard issue, but what we like about that story is the setting: the dark, mysterious, and creepy Opéra itself. Phantom is a story of place, a place that’s as important—or more important—than any of the humans who populate it. It’s a setting that evokes emotion and strengthens conflict so strongly and convincingly that it shapes the narrative.
Another example: Montana Sky by Nora Roberts. In this story, as in The Phantom of the Opera, readers understand immediately from the title how important the setting is. The Montana ranch is a unifying theme for the characters, each of whom has a different background, outlook, and conflict, but who must work together to save their inheritance, the land. The setting of the ranch shapes the characters by imposing limitations and challenges, and changing their attitudes.
Getting It Right
To strengthen the setting in your stories, ask yourself these five questions. (Thanks to Angela Ackerman for her advice.)
1) Is my setting specific, not general?
Vivid, concrete details let readers feel like they’re right there, and adding specific description and symbolism adds layers to the story itself. However, don’t spend too much time building worlds and writing descriptive exposition. Make sure the setting mirrors and complicates the plot. Don’t let it become the plot.
2) Am I focusing on all the senses?
Get to the heart of your characters’ emotional state by including sounds that add realism, smells that trigger memories, and anything else that reveals what’s important to the character. Don’t rely on sight alone.
3) Do I overdescribe or describe the wrong things?
You might know exactly what the scene looks like, but your readers don’t want to read ten pages of descriptive exposition. Overdescribing kills pacing. Include only details that reveal characterization or plot, or build emotional intensity. If your setting details don’t add to the scene by pushing your story forward, cut them.
4) Can I build more emotion with this setting?
As your character returns to the small town where she grew up after ten years away, what does she see and how does she feel about it? Filtering the character’s world—your setting—through their senses and emotions establishes point of view, creates a more vivid picture, and helps the reader understand who the characters are.
5) Is my setting meaningful, rather than simply convenient?
Think about how the setting for any specific scene could add an emotional value, creating conflict or tension and amping the stakes for your characters. Say for example, that the parents of your young adult character have died suddenly, and now your character has the responsibility of raising her kid sister. Where do they live? Perhaps it’s the family homestead, where your character grew up surrounded by love, and she feels the challenge of creating the same environment for her young sibling. Or perhaps the family homestead was a place of horror and abuse for your character, a place she fears and loathes. What then?
Or consider a more sporadic setting: Is the big tree in the town square the site of your grandfather’s lynching, or your grandparents’ first kiss? How does your character feel every time he walks by that tree?
A Powerful Force
Setting can be a powerful force in your novel, defining and structuring critical moments and evoking strong feelings. When setting acts on characters to heighten tension or enhance emotions, or when characters respond to the setting as they would to other characters, your setting achieves the status of human character in the story. And then it will be truly memorable.